Rights as Side Constraints Notes for March 20

Main points

We went over three points in Nozick’s political philosophy:

  1. The claim that rights take the form of side constraints.
  2. The argument from form to content: the best explanation of why rights take the form of side constraints also explains why they have libertarian content. This explanation involves the distinction among persons and the role that rights play in leading a meaningful life.
  3. The entitlement theory of distributive justice, that is, justice in the distribution of material goods. This holds that there are only three kinds of principles of justice. Why? Because adding any other kind of principle would lead to intolerable limits on liberty.

Extreme abstraction

Nozick’s claims are extremely abstract.

For instance, the claim that rights take the form of side constraints is only supposed to single out one feature of moral rights. It’s unlike the other readings we did in that it doesn’t attempt to capture the central or distinctive feature of rights.

His theory of justice leaves more questions than it provides answers. What, for instance, are the principles of acquisition, transfer, and restitution? There isn’t much of an attempt to spell them out. There is only the claim that these are the only kinds of principles consistent with liberty.

On the one hand, that’s why this is brilliant stuff. He seems to be able to make very broad claims on the basis of seemingly clear premises. On the other hand, this level of abstraction often leaves so many questions open that it threatens to undermine the original premises.

For instance, I thought you all did a very effective job of questioning whether rights really do take the form of side constraints. There are so many exceptions to the rights that we commonly recognize, after all. So why is it obvious that they take this form?

Even if rights don’t generally take the form of goals, as Nozick argues, it doesn’t follow that they take the form of side constraints. Maybe there’s a third alternative. Or, at most, rights seem to act as partial constraints. They rule out some ways of crossing a person’s ‘boundaries’ but not all of them.

This page was written by Michael Green for Topics in Social and Political Philosophy: Human Rights, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2007.
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